New leader must tackle security reforms
New leader must tackle security reforms
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Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

New leader must tackle security reforms

Just three days after Juan Manuel Santos was sworn in as Colombia's president, he has already begun to distance himself from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, most visibly by holding a summit Tuesday in Bogotá with Venezuela president Hugo Chávez.

Uribe's eight-year military campaign weakened the country's largest guerilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but it by no means eradicated it. The FARC still commands some 8,000-10,000 troops, and through forced recruitment -- particularly of children -- has replenished many of the foot soldiers that Uribe's government forces killed or captured. Increased links to drug trafficking have refilled its coffers and ensured a constant stream of income.

The military strategy had sought to isolate the FARC secretariat from the rest of the organization, pushing it into remote regions and reducing its presence from half of the nation's 1098 municipalities in 2002 to a quarter today. No longer a menace in major cities, it is still nowhere near the point of collapse. It relies on anti-personnel mines, sniper attacks, and improvised explosive devices, all of which are extremely cheap and deadly.

Smaller and more vulnerable groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) are forced into alliances with the FARC in some areas and in competition with them in others. Both managed to escape pursuit by moving across the Venezuelan border -- and Uribe's hostility toward Chávez had little impact.

Perhaps equally worrisome is the rise of New Illegal Armed Groups (NIAGs) such as the Rastrojos (the stubble) and the Aguilas Negras (black eagles). Some are simply drug-trafficking gangs, but others trace their ancestry to the paramilitaries that were never fully demobilized under Uribe. The NIAGs add a troubling new dimension to the struggle for citizen security in Colombia.

Santos took a first step toward shifting from past policies by naming as his foreign minister a former ambassador to the United Nations who resigned in protest at Uribe actions. Santos also invited Chávez to his inauguration and announced plans to look beyond a purely military security policy.

Uribe responded just days before Santos' swearing in by having his ambassador present video, photos and satellite imagery at the OAS that purported to show dozens of ``R(est)'' and ``R(elaxation)'' insurgent camps in Venezuela. While the FARC presence in Venezuela had long been known, the PR event at the OAS showed that Uribe had no intention of fading away at the end of his two terms.

Failed policies

In his inaugural speech, Santos lauded Uribe's work to strengthen the Colombian armed forces, but he also alluded to those policies that failed to achieve the critical objective of ending Colombia's 50-year conflict. Perhaps most important, he repeated his intention to improve relations with neighbors by inviting Chávez to Tuesday's summit.

President Santos seemed to understand the challenges he faces require Colombia to significantly broaden its security strategy, but that will not be easy, particularly if Uribe objects.

  • To get past that, Santos should first maintain military pressure on the FARC and respond to the insurgents' new tactics while ending the human rights violations that tarnished the reputation of Uribe's armed forces. The security policy also requires cooperation with Colombia's neighbors: Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru. With Venezuela, it means convincing other Latin leaders to help Chávez recognize the diplomatic dangers of flirting with the FARC.
  • Second, Santos should implement a comprehensive citizen security strategy that addresses the emerging illegal armed groups as seriously as it does the FARC, ELN, and paramilitary groups. That requires strengthening law enforcement, judiciary and human-rights prosecutors, particularly to protect minority communities.
  • Third, Santos should emphasize rural poverty reduction and extending state presence in municipalities as soon as they are secure. It means seriously acting on land reform, enabling hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people to return home and tasking government ministries as full partners in a civilian-led consolidation strategy.

Security reforms

  • Finally, it means devising an end-game negotiating strategy that offers the FARC and ELN a way in from the cold without adding to Colombia's history of impunity.

If President Santos fails to implement badly needed security reforms, which he promised on Saturday, he may find himself staring down the barrel of a new and protracted war with guerrillas, paramilitary and narcotraffickers. And stuck in the shadow of his predecessor.

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